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Port Isaac is a small fishing village that tumbles down to the sea at a narrow cove on the North Cornish coast. Although certainly not short of tourists we found this area delightfully by passed by most visitors as they speed along the coastal roads to Newquay, St Ives and other hotspots of Cornish tourism. No doubt this area suffers also from the second home syndrome that so rightly annoys the locals, but this part of Cornwall retains a more authentic feel of community. Port Isaac certainly felt vibrant and alive.
It is a fairly long but gentle stroll from the main car park to the start of the older part of Port Isaac. Then the incline changes from gentle to steep. There is another car park on the way to the neighbouring Port Gaverne that is closer to the harbour, but it is smaller and often full.
On our stroll down to the harbour we are confronted with Port Isaac’s more recent past. Outside a relevant property there is a tour guide and his flock of Doc Martin devotees enjoying tales from the filming of that popular TV series. A good percentage of today’s visitors are in Port Isaac because of the Doc Martin show. It is an enduring reason for people to arrive in the village, seeking out the filming locations. I must confess that I have never watched a single episode. Whether that deserves an apology I am not sure but I sense I am in a minority of at least one just now. Cornwall is a mecca for film producers and this particular production is extremely popular.
We pass a couple of the ubiquitous, but welcome, pasty establishments. As always in Cornwall the claim of a particular outlet will try to surpass that of its neighbour. The finest pasty in all of Cornwall is for you to decide but you will not be wanting for advice along the way. Port Isaac, like many small harbour villages, boasts some attractive artist studios and independent gift shops. On the way down Fore Street (do all Cornish villages have a Fore Street?) two catch the eye – Secrets which has a variety of artwork and artisan creations and Martin Dempsey Gallery just a little farther down the incline. Distractions abound as we slowly make our way to the harbour. Along the way as a keen photographer I am drawn to the occasional opening offering a panorama of the harbour and out to sea. It is an attractive and quite dramatic setting for a fishing community.
The harbour landing area is called ‘The Platt’. It is quite unusual in that it is very much a beach landing for the vessels and the catch would be hauled up the incline of the Platt. Lobster pots give a clue as to the popular catch for the village. Fresh fish is sold just yards from the sea at ‘Just Shellfish’ by the Platt opposite the RNLI station. A young lifeboatman was touting for contributions but as I had my RNLI cap on at the time, he allowed me to be exempt. It is a charity I am happy to support. Living in Weston Super Mare I am aware on a nearly daily basis just what incredible work they do. As for some of the people they have to ‘rescue’ at WSM – well, words fail me!
Port Isaac is not pedestrianised, it cannot be as it is a working harbour and village. One consequence of that is the beach landing area is used as a van park for the businesses in the village. Now, as a photographer I have to say that this does impact on the view. But, this is not a Cornish Disneyland, people live and work here. Fore Street is the main road in Port Isaac, but it is like most streets in the village, extremely narrow. As we got to the harbour a white van was starting back up the hill, coming to the first sharp turn up the hill. I have to say that I thought this to be the definition of optimism. I was proved correct as he met another van coming downhill around the same corner and they ended up face to face. That took some sorting out but I assume an everyday consequence of trying to make a living in this cramped space. The aptly named Squeezy Belly Alley is just off the harbour and you can see if that description would apply to you. I was fine.
I always feel self-conscious about exploring the narrow streets of a village like this. People live here and perhaps do not want people gawping at them, especially with a camera. However, tourism is vitally important to the village and on balance tourists will want to explore if they are to spend money in the village and hopefully the locals are not overly disturbed. I take a couple of photos along the lanes and then run away quickly.
Directly facing the Platt and with views out over the harbour is one of Nathan Outlaw’s Michelin starred fish restaurants. This one is quite small, serving a few tables only. At the beginning of his career he worked with well known fish chef Rick Stein in Padstow, Cornwall. He has gained a fine reputation. One of those chefs that people seem to not have a bad word about, and he is popular locally – he doesn’t appear to be a knife throwing chef shall we say. He is firmly based in Port Isaac after having his flagship restaurant in Rock for several years. I love fish and cook it often at home. We have enjoyed Rick Stein’s restaurant several times and his style is to keep it simple and fresh and that is just perfect for us. I am undecided about whether I want my fish restaurant experience to be in the style demanded to gain a Michelin star. I need to try it to see whether Nathan Outlaw’s extra attention to precision detail is for me. Maybe next visit.
Fore Street leads back up to re-join the SW coastal path, just close by the Cornish Cove tearoom. This path is well worth the detour, leading to the even smaller Port Gaverne. The path gives excellent views over Port Isaac sea entrance. The cliffs opposite show signs of caves having been formed at the base. Not that I shall be exploring. Visiting in early spring means you get the delight of seeing the abundance of spring flowers on the cliff sides and that is true throughout Cornwall at this time of year. The path leads to the other car park for Port Isaac and the start of the road down to Port Gaverne.
Halfway down to the beach is a welcome seat offering a spectacular view over the cove. The cove is narrow and on first view a treacherous place to bring a boat into. Fingers of rock jut out into the cove and the entrance is narrow and in fierce weather would have needed exceptional skill to navigate. Port Gaverne was once a thriving port and during its time of importance for fishing the catch would have been mainly pilchards. You sense that would have been a tough life, even tougher than the life the fisherman of Port Isaac just around the headland would have endured. Today, it is a perfect spring day. On the rocks leading to the cove entrance brave swimmers are taking advantage of the calm sea and leaping off the rocks for a spot of wild swimming. I watch admiringly but with no wish to join them.
Time now to make our way back. Above the car park on the left is another art gallery – Cliffside Gallery. A beautiful gallery to enjoy, featuring artwork, textiles and more. Opposite just higher up the road is Nathan Outlaws new restaurant ‘New Road’. It reminds me that we have still not bought any fresh fish and the thought of walking all the way back down to buy at the harbourside is not a tempting one now. Just farther along is a fish oasis. A small inviting café called ‘Fresh From The Sea’ does indeed live up to the claim in the name. It sells fish in addition to serving a few tables inside and outside. We could have stayed for the ‘Sole in a Bun’ but instead buy some fresh sole to cook later. It turns out to be the most wonderful fresh pieces of fish I have tasted in a long, long time. What a brilliant place and well positioned at the top of the hill rather than below.
So ends our day but the fish in the evening with a chilled glass of wine will round of a excellent Day in ………Port Isaac.